|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.36(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.69(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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You sit, in contemplative posture, your features agonized and your expressions pained; you sit for hours and hours and hours, sleepless, looking into darkness, hearing a small snore coming from the room next to yours. And you conjure a past: a past in which you see a horse drop its rider; a past in which you discern a bird breaking out of its shell so it will fly into the heavens of freedom. Out of the same past emerges a man wrapped in a mantle with unpatched holes, each hole large as a window and each window large as the secret to which you cling as though it were the only soul you possessed. And you question, you challenge every thought which crosses your mind.
Yes. You are a question to yourself. It is true. You've become a question to all those who meet you, those who know you, those who have any dealings with you. You doubt, at times, if you exist outside your own thoughts, outside your own head, or Misra's. It appears as though you were a creature given birth to by notions formulated in heads, a creature brought into being by ideas; as though you were not a child born with the fortune or misfortune of its stars, a child bearing a name, breathing just like anybody else, a child whose activities were justifiably part of a people's past and present experience. You exist, you think, the way the heavenly bodies exist, for although one does extend one's finger and point at the heavens, one knows, yes that's the word, one knows that that is not the heavens. Unless ... unless there are, in a sense, as many heavens as there are thinking beings;unless there are as many heavens as there are pointing fingers.
At times, when your uncle speaks about you, in your presence, referring to you in the third person and, on occasion, even taking the liberty of speaking on your behalf, you wonder if your existence is readily differentiable from creatures of fiction whom habit has taught one to talk of as if they were one's closest of friends creatures of fiction with whose manner of speech; reactions to situations; conditions of being; and with whose likes and dislikes one's folk-tradition has made one familiar. From your limited knowledge of literature, you feel you are a blood relation of some of the names which come to mind, leap to the tongue at the thought of a young boy whose name is Askar and whose prodigious imagination is capable of wealthy signs of precocity -- because you are this young boy!
As you sit contemplatively, your mind journeys to a region where there were solid and prominent shadows which lived on behalf of others who had years before ceased to exist as beings. As you sit, your eyes open into themselves, the way blind people's eyes tend to. Then you become numb of soul: in other words, you are not yourself not quite yourself anyway. The journey takes you through numerous doorways and you are enabled to call back to memory events which occurred long before you were a being yourself. Your travel leads you through forests without any clearing, to stone steps too numerous to count, although when you reach the highest point, your exhaustion disappears the instant you see an old man, grey as his advanced years, negotiate the steps too. You remember now, that in the wake of the old man there was a girl, barely seven, following the old man as a goat follows a butcher, knowing what knives of destiny await it.
And you ...!
You! You who had lain in wait, unwashed, you who had lain unattended to at birth. Yes, you lay in wait as though in ambush until a woman who wasn't expecting that you existed walked into the dark room in which you had been from the second you were born. You were a mess. You were a most terrible sight. The woman who found you described the chill of that dark room as a tomb. To her, the air suggested the dampness of a mortuary. You cried at her approaching and wouldn't be calmed until she dipped you in the bathtub she had filled with warm water. Then she fed you on a draught of goat's milk. Did anyone ever tell you what you looked like when the woman discovered you that dusk some eighteen years or so ago? No?
You wore on your head a hat of blood which made you look like a masked clown. And around your neck there were finger-stains, perhaps your mother's. (Nobody knows to this day whether she tried to kill you or no.) You displayed a nervous strain and you began to relax only when embraced either by another person or dipped in warm water. When you didn't cry, you searched, with your hands up in the air, for someone to touch.
When day broke, once the woman had shared the secret of her discovery with a few of the other neighbours, the men took over and they prepared your mother for burial. Alone with you, Misra noticed that your eyes were full of mistrust. They focused on her, they stared at her hands suspiciously! Your eyes, she would say years later, journeyed through her, they journeyed beyond her, they travelled to a past of unfulfilled dreams: in short, your stare made her feel inadequate. There was an element of self-consciousness in the small thing I had found, she said. It was so self-conscious it moved its hands as though it would wipe away the mess it had been in; it moved its eyes, when not staring at me, she continued, as though to apologize for its shortcomings. And what eyes! What hands!
It was not long before you tasted in Misra a motherliness which reabsorbed you, a motherliness in whose tight, warm embrace you felt joyous one second, miserable the following instant. Again, you would try to make contact and when she did her best to return it, you would appear startled and ready to withdraw, you would shun any contact with her completely and move away. She helped you minimize life's discomforts. She groaned with you when you moaned constipatedly; she helped you relieve yourself by fondling you, touching you and by telling you sweet stories, addressing you, although you were a tiny little mess of a thing, as "my man", "my darlingest man", or some such endearments which would make you feel wanted, loved and pampered.
In her company, you were ecstatic there was no other word for it. Yes, you were visibly ecstatic. And you were noisy. You displayed your pleasures with the pomp and show one associates with the paranoid among kings. But then you could be quiet in her embrace too, reflective and thoughtful so thoughtful that some of the neighbours couldn't believe their eyes, watching you pensively quiet, your eyes bright with visions only you could see. It was when she wasn't there, when you missed her presence, when you couldn't smell her maternal odour, it was then that you cried and you put your soul into crying, appearing as though possessed, looking satanically agitated and devilishly messy. Upon returning from wherever she had gone, she would dip you wholly in water, scrub you and wash you with the same devotion as she might have used when cleaning the floor of her room. The community of relations decided that Misra, the woman who once was a servant, would "mother" you. One thing ought to be said here you were the one who made the choice the community of relations had to approve of; you, who were barely a week old. And Misra agrees with this statement. So, begrudgingly, would Uncle Qorrax in Kallafo.
When agitated, you stretched out your hands in front of you like a blind man in search of landmarks and if you touched someone other than Misra, you burst instantly into the wildest and most furious convulsive cry. But if Misra were there, you fell silent, you would touch her and then touch yourself. It seemed to her that you could discover yourself only in her. "By touching me, he knows he is there," she once confided in a man you were later to refer to as Aw-Adan.
There was something maternal about the cosmos Misra introduced you to from the day it was decided you were her charge, from the moment she could call you, in the privacy of the room allotted to the two of you, whatever endearments she mustered in her language. But to her you were most often "my man" or variations thereof especially whenever you wet yourself; especially when washing you, touching and squeezing your manhood or wiping, rather roughly, your anus. Occasionally, however, she would gently spank you on the bottom and address you differently. But she always remained maternal, just like the cosmos, giving and giving. "While," she said to you, "man is the child receiving into himself the cosmos itself, the cosmos grows larger, like a hole, the more she gives." Admittedly this was something impenetrable to your own comprehension. To you, whether what she said made sense or no, she was the cosmos. She was the one that took you away from "yourself", as it were, she was the one who took you back into the world-of-the-womb and of innocence, and washed you clean in the water of a new life and a new christening, to produce in you the correct etches of a young self, with no pained memories, replacing your missing parents with her abundant self which she offered generously to you her newly rediscovered child! And you?
To Misra, you existed first and foremost in the weird stare: you were, to her, your eyes, which, once they found her, focused on her guilt her self! She caught the look you cast in her direction the way a clumsy child grabs a ball and she framed the stare in the memory of her photographic brain. She developed it, printed it in different colours, each of which expressed her mood. She was sure, for instance, that you saw her the way she was: a miserable woman, with no child and no friends; a woman who, that dusk would you believe it? menstruated right in front of you, under that most powerful stare of yours. She saw, in that look of yours, her father, whom she saw last when she was barely five.
"Annoy a child and you'll discover the adult in him," she would repeat, believing it to be a proverb. "Please an adult with gifts and the child therein re-emerges." And she annoyed you, she pleased you, and she was sufficiently patient to watch the adult in you come out and display itself. Not only did she see her father in you but also the child in herself: she saw a different terrain of land, and she heard a different language spoken and she watched, on the screen of her past, a number of pictures replayed as though they were real and as painful as yesterday. She sought her childhood in you and she hid her most treasured secrets which she was willing to impart to you and you alone. In you, too, she saw a princess, barely five, a pretty princess surrounded with servants and well-wishers, one who could have anything she pleased and who was loved by her mother, but not so much by her father because she was a girl and wouldn't inherit his title wouldn't continue his line. A princess!
To you, too, although you were too small to understand, she told secrets about your parents no one else was ready to tell you. She told you why your mother had been hiding in the room where she had found the two of you and why she died in a quiet secretive way. She also whispered in your ears things about your father, who had died a few months before your birth, in mysterious circumstances, in a prison, for his ideals. Your mother took refuge in a room tucked away in the backyard of a rich man's house and it was in there that she gave birth to you in hiding.
Possibly you would have died of the chill you were exposed to, if Misra hadn't walked in accidentally. Fortunately for you, anyway, Misra had found the room in which you were, a most convenient place to hide from Aw-Adan, who had been pestering her with advances she didn't wish to return in like manner. The room had been open and she stumbled into it, closing the door immediately behind her. She didn't realize until later that you and your mother were there: you alive and your mother dead. Hers would have to remain the only evidence one has and one has to take her word for it. She would insist that she didn't know until later who your father was. Why she waited until she had washed and fed you and mothered you these are things of which she refuses to speak. At any rate, by the time the community of relations had been informed of your existence and your mother's death, some sixteen or so hours had gone past, and it was during this time that you and Misra had become acquainted and that she made sure no one else set eyes on you. Of course, no one dared challenge her statement. As a matter of fact, it was thought very wise that you were kept an untalked-about secret, considering whose son you were; so no one outside the immediate family knew about you for a long time. It was for this reason that your mother's corpse was buried in haste and secretly too, your mother who left behind her no trace save yourself you who were assigned to Misra as a ward, or some said as if you were her child. You were the whisper to be softly spoken. Your name was to become two syllables no one uttered openly, which meant that not only were there no Koranic blessings said in either of your ears to welcome you to this world but your presence here in this universe was not at all celebrated. You did not exist as far as many were concerned; nor did you have any identity as the country's bureaucracy required. Askar! The letter "s" in your name was gently said so as to arouse no suspicions; whereas the "k" was held in the cosiness of a tongue couched in the unspoken secrets of a sound. As-kar! It was the "r" which rolled like a cow in the hot sand after half-a-day's grazing. Askar!
The point of you was that, in small and large ways, you determined what Misra's life would be like the moment you took it over. From the moment you "took her life over", her personality underwent a considerable change. She became a mother to you. She began walking with a slight stoop and her hip, as though ready to carry you, protruded to the side. She no longer saw as much of Aw-Adan, the priest, as she used to, a priest who used to teach her, on a daily basis, a few suras of the Koran and in whom she was slightly interested. That interest deteriorated with the passage of the days and finally petered out the way light fades when there is no more paraffin in the lamp. The point of you was that, in small and large ways, Misra, now that you were hers, saw her own childhood "as a category cradled in a bed of memories, one of which was nurtured in thoughts which alienated the child in her". She had had a "fatherless" child herself and the child had died a few months before you were born. She was sad she had had to feed you on a bottle; she was sad she couldn't suckle you, offer you her own milk, her soul. Her own child had been eighteen months when he died and she had only just weaned him. Very often, in the secret chambers of her unuttered thoughts, there would cross an idea: that she probably had some milk of motherhood in her. And she would bare her breasts and make you suck them; you would turn away and refuse to be suckled and she would cry and cry and be miserable. Your crying would provide the unsung half of the chorus. She would promise you and promise herself never to try to breast-feed you again. Although she did, again and again. The question nobody is in a privileged enough position to answer, is whether or not your mother suckled you just before she died. You are in no position to confirm that. But Misra is "obsessed" with the thought that you were breast-fed by her. When pressed, she would insist, "I know, I know for sure that she did."
Your father existed for you in a photograph of him you saw, in which he stands behind an army tank, green as the backdrop in the picture, and you were told that he had "liberated" the tank, while fighting for the Western Somali Liberation Movement, of which he remained an active member until his last second, brave as the stories narrated about him. Your mother existed for you in a suckle you do not even recall and there is nobody to dispute Misra's theory that your mother actually suckled you. One thing is very clear. You did not inherit from her any treasures; if anything, she bequeathed to you only a journal and stories told you in snippets by others. And what did you bequeath to Misra? There is a photograph taken when you were very, very small; there is a hand, most definitely yours, stretched outwards, away from your own body, searching for another hand most probably hers, a hand to touch, a hand to help and to give assurances. Also, there is one of the pictures which she still has and which has survived all the turmoil of wars and travel and displacements, a picture in which you are alone, in a bathtub, half-standing and playfully splashing in the joy of the water's soapy foaminess. In the photograph, there is a hand of a woman Misra's most likely a hand reaching out to make contact with yours but which accidentally "hovers", like a hawk, over your private parts which the hand doesn't quite touch! And there is, in the picture, a patch of a stain, dark as blood, a stain which your eyes fall on and which you stare at.
But most important of all, you bequeathed to Misra the look in your eye when she walked in that evening, running away from Aw-Adan's lusty attentions. At times, she saw you reproduce a look which she associated with what she could remember of her own father; and at others, she saw another which she identified as her son's before he was taken ill and died.
It was a great pity, she thought, that there was no maternal milk she could offer to you, her young charge. But there was plenty of her and she gave it: she kept you warm by tucking you between her breasts, she held you close to her body so she could sense your movements, so she might attend to you whenever you stirred: you shared a bed, the two of you, and she smelled of your urine precisely in the same way you smelled of her sweat: upon your body were printed impressions of her fingerprints, the previous night's moisture: yours and hers.
She nourished you, not only on food paid for by a community of relations, but on a body of opinion totally her own. With you, young as you were, needy and self-sufficient as an infant, she could choose to be herself she could walk about in front of you in the nude if she wanted to, or could invite Aw-Adan to share, with the two of you, the small bed which creaked when they made love, a bed onto whose sagged middle you rolled, sandwiched as you were between them. When awake, and if you were the only person in the room, Misra spoke at you, saying whatever it was that she had intended to, talking about the things which bothered or pleased her. But there was something she did only in your or Aw-Adan's presence. She spoke Amharic. She cursed people in her language. To her, it didn't matter whether you understood it or not. What mattered to her was the look in your eyes, the look of surprise or incomprehension; a look which took her back to the first encounter: yours and hers.
Because of her relations with you, and because you were so attached to her, Misra's status in the community became a controversial topic. To many members of the community, she was but that "maidservant who came from somewhere else, up north" and they treated her despicably, looking down upon her and calling her all sorts of things. It was said that her name wasn't even Misra. However, no one bothered to check the source of the rumour. No one took the trouble to reach the bottom of the mystery. But who was she really? To you, she was the cosmos and hers was the body of ideas upon which your growing mind nourished. It didn't matter in the least whether she came from upper Ethiopia or not, neither did it matter in the least if she had been abducted by a warrior from one of the clans north of yours when she was seven. Maidservant or no, she meant the world to you. Also, you believed that no one knew her as well as you did, no one needed her as much as you and nobody studied the changes in her moods as often as you. In short, you missed her immensely when she wasn't with you. And so, with a self-abandon many began to associate with you, you cried and cried until she was brought to you. With a similar self-surrender, you displayed the pleasure of her company. Which was what made some say that she had bewitched you.
She taught you how best you should make use of your own body. She helped you learn to wash it, she assisted you in watching it grow, like the day's shadow, from the shortest to the longest purposelessness of an hour; she familiarized you with the limitations of your own body. When it came to your soul, when it came to how to help your brain develop, she said she couldn't trust herself to deal with that satisfactorily. Not then, anyway. Was this why she went and sought Aw-Adan's help?
Aw-Adan and you didn't take to each other right from your first encounter. You didn't like the way he out-stared you, nor did you like him when Misra paid him all her attention, leaving you more or less to yourself. He commented on the look in your eyes: a look he described as "wicked and satanic". To defend you, she described the look in your eyes as "adulted". Aw-Adan did not appear at all convinced. Then she went on to say, "To have met death when not quite a being, perhaps this explains why he exists primarily in the look in his eyes. Perhaps his stars have conferred upon him the fortune of holding simultaneously multiple citizenships of different kingdoms: that of the living and that of the dead; not to mention that of being an infant and an adult at the same time." Disappointed with her explanation, Aw-Adan went away, promising he would never see her again.
But he came back. He was in love with her or so she believed. And as usual, he couldn't resist commenting upon the fact that she had organized her life around you: you were "her time" as he put it; for she awoke, first thing in the morning, not to say her prayers but to attend to your needs. And what was she to you? To you, said Aw-Adan, she was your "space": you moved about her body in the manner an insect crawls up a wall, even-legged, sure-footed and confident. And he continued, "Allah is the space and time of all Muslims, but not to you, Misra, Askar is." He didn't see anything wrong in what he said. But then how could he? He was jealous.
In the unEdenic universe into which you were cast by your stars, you were not content, like any intelligent being, with the small world of darkness you opened your eyes on. You behaved as though you had to find and touch the world outside of yourself, and this you did in order to be reassured of a given continuity. "He behaves," said Misra to Aw-Adan, her confidant, one night when the three of you were in bed and the priest was not in his foulest of moods, "Askar behaves as if he feels lost unless his outstretched hands bring back to his acute senses the reassuring message that I am touchably there. He cannot imagine a world without my reassuring self."
"What am I to do then? Suggest something," said Aw-Adan.
"Be as accommodating to me as I am to him," she said.
"You are insane," he said.
"And you jealous," she said.
"You are never alone," complained Aw-Adan, who wanted her to himself. "I see you with him all the time, so much so that I see him even when he isn't there. You smell of his urine and at times I too smell of it and it upsets me gravely. Why can't we just marry, you and I? He isn't yours but with God's help, we can make one of our own, together, you and I. Come to me alone both of body and of spirit and let our bodies join, without Askar's odour and cries."
"I cannot," she said. "I am his in body and spirit too. And no one else's. I can be yours or somebody else's only in sin. Yes, only in sin. Imagine you, a man of God at that!"
And she burst into tears.
And Aw-Adan stirred.
And you woke up and cried.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
"Defeat is an orphan; victory has a hundred fathers."
In Maps, Askar, a newly-delivered orphan boy, bloody from the womb, is discovered by a peasant woman in the war-torn province of Ogaden. His father killed in battle, his mother dead from childbirth, he is taken in by the woman who raises him as her own. In Gifts, Duniya, a single mother, becomes guardian to a foundling said to have been left in a rubbish bin. InSecrets, Kalaman, a computer entrepreneur from Mogadiscio, begins a soul-searching journey into the secrets surrounding his birth with the help of a shape-shifter named Sholoongo, herself abandoned as an infant and raised by lionesses.
The painful, tender question of "Who am I?" is one that Nuruddin Farah's characters obsessively ask themselves while living in a society where blood ties are everything, where who your father is can mean life or death. Orphans of all sorts—abandoned babies, tetherless ideologies, displaced peoples, and fragmented countries—are at the heart of each book in the Blood in the Sun trilogy. It is Farah's agility as a writer and his opulent imagination that tie them together into an overarching exploration of the meaning of identity.
Born in 1945, Farah was raised in the Ogaden, a Somali- speaking region that was put under Ethiopian control by the Western powers that drew the modern map of Africa. The question of political and national identity was challenging enough— "Am I Somali or Ethiopian?"—but was further complicated by the other cultural currents that wind through the region. As a boy, Farah's imagination was shaped by a world where sparrows and bees prophesy to humans, a world steeped both in ancient animistic beliefs and in the Islamic religion. His mother was a poet in the Somali oral tradition who introduced him to the deeper rhythms of nature and language. He spoke Somali, Amharic, Arabic, and Italian before learning English, the language in which he writes today.
In 1963, a savage war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden shattered the Somali economy and drove Farah's family from its home to the capital Mogadiscio. The novels he published in response to these events, including his trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, were denounced by the Somali dictator, Siyad Barre. For his own safety, Farah did not return to his country after completing his studies in England in 1974. From abroad, he saw Somalia implode in the 1990s as competing factions waged a brutal civil war in the streets of Mogadiscio. More than forty thousand people, most of them civilians, perished in one six-month period, creating a wasteland of widows and orphans. Farah did not set foot on Somali soil again until 1996.
He began work on the Blood in the Sun trilogy almost ten years into his exile. Though out of range of the gunfire, Farah remained deeply committed to writing about his country and his people. In Maps, Secrets, and Gifts, politics are present—the dead bodies, the factions, and the checkpoints are there—but it is the intricate, intriguing structure of Somali family life that shines brightly within the context of travel, war, and displacement. Mothers, fathers, sex, blood, loyalty, and magic are examined with humor and a striking lyricism that confirm Nuruddin Farah as a writer of singular originality.
Maps, first published in Britain and the United States in 1986, takes place in the embattled Ogaden. It is a delicate and mystical evocation of the bonds of mother to son, and son to mother-country. Askar, a Somali orphan, recounts his life with his "mother" Misra, an Ethiopian woman, through fragmented, almost hallucinatory memories and dreams. He is raised in the warmth of Misra's visceral love, sleeping curled up with her every night, crying soulfully when she is far away. Eventually he imagines his body is an extension of hers, a third leg. From an early age he becomes acutely aware of her menstrual cycles, which he believes he experiences too. Blood—whether flowing from a wound, imagined in one of Askar's dreams of rivers and war, or "read" by Misra as a means of telling the future—is the tie that connects mother and child, although they share no biological bond.
Askar's love and loyalty are tested when Misra is accused of betraying the location of a pro-Somali group that is fighting to capture the Ogaden. Now living with his uncle in Mogadiscio and about to join the Somali fight, Askar is pulled between loyalty to Misra and obedience to Somalia. He looks for truth, and questions truth, in maps drawn by foreign hands, in the physical reality of his own body, in the spirituality of Misra, and in his country. It is all of these things and none of these things that make him who he is. Askar is a man of his "own creation."
In Gifts (1993), Farah moves ahead to the 1990s, artfully exploring identity and interdependence in a starving Somalia through the eyes of a single mother. Duniya, the head nurse at a maternity hospital in Mogadiscio, has established a relatively self-sufficient home with her children (no small feat for a divorcée in a patriarchal society), when two unexpected events transform her life. First she accepts a ride to work from Bosaaso, a wealthy family friend who has returned from the West to do charity work in his home country. That evening she receives another "gift," a newborn baby which her daughter says has been abandoned. These two gifts—heralded by vivid, magical dreams of cats and butterflies in the mode of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez—launch a tale that is part love story, part mystery, and, ultimately, a subtle reflection on giving and receiving, dependence and reciprocity.
Women are respected and revered, even feared, in Farah's novels. Ever since the publication of his first book, From a Crooked Rib (1970), he has been regarded as a man uniquely gifted at portraying women's perspectives. Farah movingly describes how Somali women derive their identities from their male associations. Women, attempting self-definition, face harsher resistance; Duniya must fight to learn to drive and to swim. Gifts have always been double-edged swords for her. Her in-laws have given her a home, but require in return that she relinquish her young daughter. In a country defined by grim images telecast by the Western media and by the self-serving aims of the foreign givers, Duniya realizes that "no giving was innocent." But along with the orphan comes a vision of escape from this labyrinth of dependence: a romance with Bosaaso that is as whimsical as a butterfly's flight and as selfless as a mother's love.
"Mothers matter a lot, fathers not," a young Kalaman chants in Secrets, the third novel of the trilogy, published in 1998. Set on the brink of Somalia's breakup into warring clans, the novel asks, "Whose son am I?" This question is as loaded as a rifle, and is the object of Kalaman's obsessive pursuit into family secrets. Birds, crocodiles, elephants, tamarind juice, and locusts inhabit both real life and dreams as Kalaman interviews the members of his family about the origins of his birth and name. It is the appearance of Sholoongo, a one-woman wrecking crew intent on bearing Kalaman's child, that pries loose the family's secrets. Her mysterious involvement with each of them—mother, father, and grandfather—produces a bizarre mix of taboo-breaking sexual, political, and personal revelations.
In Farah's novels, biological fathers, like names, matter little in the hierarchy of truth. Fathers are absent in Maps and Gifts, and almost no one has a surname. In Secrets, the answer to Kalaman's father-quest comes in the form of memories of his childhood. Tender moments in his father's engraving shop, sitting with his grandfather under a mango tree, listening to centuries-old stories—these are what connect him to his familial past. "In place of sperm, I thought it was the river of his humanity which flowed into my blood, a more precious thing, everlasting in my memory." The internal strife of Kalaman's family reflects the fate of Somalia, and Farah speaks volumes about his country's misguided preoccupation with paternal identity when Kalaman reflects, "We live in tragic times, when a chance birth can make so much difference to how one is viewed, when a secret ensconced in the recesses of untamed memories assigns one an inferior or a superior position."
Such accidents of birth and such distorted perceptions of difference became important enough to kill for, Farah says, when Somalia was politically orphaned: when its former dictator lost his war with Ethiopia for the Ogaden, but failed to resign. In the face of ruin and defeat, the self-proclaimed "father of the country" left a leaderless vacuum that Somalis filled by reviving long-dead clan loyalties. These allegiances, vehemently defended with talk of blood and bloodlines, are destructive in the modern world.
Askar, Duniya, and Kalaman learn there is no simple answer to the question, "Who am I?", nor should there be. Even when we know who our blood parents are, the world we occupy is as distant from theirs as the Ogaden is from Oklahoma, where Farah accepted the 1998 Neustadt Prize. In the speech he made on that occasion, he said, "A question I've often asked myself is: are my parents continued in me? . . . We met, my parents and I, as though we were travelers meeting in a transit lounge. As children raised apart, we were, in essentials, journeymen of the future, hybrids of a new sort." To Farah, this conditional relationship with the past, this spiritual orphanhood, is Somalia's greatest loss and its dearest hope.
ABOUT NURUDDIN FARAH
Nuruddin Farah is the winner of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. He is the author of eight novels. Farah, who was exiled from his native Somalia nearly twenty-five years ago, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with his wife, daughter, and son.
A CONVERSATION WITH NURUDDIN FARAH
Who or what influenced you to become a writer? Why did you decide to write in English, rather than in Somali, Amharic, or Arabic?
In 1968 I began work on From a Crooked Rib, my first published novel, in preparation for a reflection on the politics of gender in Somali society long before feminism became a byword. Moreover I remember receiving a letter from the British publisher who asked me if I was a man or a woman. Soon after its publication in 1970, I got used to receiving letters addressed to me as Ms. or Mrs. Farah, and for a good while I was at a loss as to whether I should disabuse them of their assumption by telling them that I was after all a man. Suffice it for the moment to say that I emulated my mother, an oral poet, who exercised a towering influence on me during my pliant teens when I displayed my initial interest in writing. I used to watch her compose her poems, used to watch her, with utter fascination, as she paced back and forth in a room with a door pushed to so she would have all the peace in the world. It was a great joy to me when, on re-emerging, she spoke the completed poem aloud to herself, a great joy for me to eavesdrop on her. On occasion, she would ask me to learn it by heart so I would be the one to deliver it to a rhapsodist who would chant it to the audience for which the poem was intended. I decided to write in English, given that Somali, my mother tongue, had no standardized orthography in 1965. And if I chose to write in English and not in Arabic or Amharic, the other foreign languages in which I received my formal education, it was because of a fortuitous purchase I had made, that of an American typewriter, which, I felt, helped me write like a song.
Misra, Duniya, and Sholoongo are strong women by any standards, but even more striking in a patriarchal Muslim society. Were there women in your life who served as models for any of these characters?
By way of apology, maybe because I feel that I transgressed into a literary territory that was my mother's before I inveigled myself into it, I've said elsewhere that everything I've written is a tribute to the strength and wisdom with which my mother inspired me during my young years. Besides I tend to be attracted to strong women who can take the authority of their voice and use it effectively in order to defend their position, if only because I see women as a symbol of the subjugated self in everyone of us. I take it as given: that in every man there is a woman, and that in every woman there is a man, that there is a child in every adult. And that it is necessary to create the space in which everyone is free. I take it as given, too, that the society as a whole cannot be described as "democratic" until every man, woman and child is liberated from the constraints of male-stipulated system of subjugation, especially of women. To achieve this, you need strong women.
The Somalia described in your novels is enriched by many different traditions—pre-Islamic, Islamic, and Western. Who are the Somalis? What unites them as a people?
For almost nine centuries, Somalis have been in constant communication with the Middle East through Islam; with the Indian subcontinent through trade; and with Europe as a consequence of our country being partitioned into spheres colonized by Italy, Britain, and France, not to mention the two other Somali-speaking "spoils" that were gifted to neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya. Somali being a spoken language but not a written one meant that we could only be educated in foreign languages. This resulted in a great number of us becoming polyglots. In my immediate family, we are able to communicate, read and write in the languages of our colonial masters, in addition to those of Russia and Germany where two of my brothers did their postgraduate studies. I feel there is something forward-looking about knowing other languages and there is something outward looking about studying other cultures so one could read the classics in the original. Reading A Thousand and One Nights and then Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo, and other European classics enriched my understanding of my own culture. Moreover, coming from a small, poor country in Africa, I've found it worth my while to receive what the world has on offer and along with it the knowledge that eventually made the world larger, greater, and more varied, confident that my life would become all the richer.
Although many foreigners think of Somalia as a place of intense internecine strife, the conflicts in your stories are not blood feuds between family clans. How is the Western view of the country distorted?
Even though I am aware that it is seldom wise to generalize, I would none the less argue that when foreigners speak about Somalia, a great number of them fail to pay heed to the multiple versions of the Somali reality. Foreign scholars and journalists alike see the current crisis in the country as a one-single issue, describing it in a kind of shorthand, namely "clan conflict!" The crises unfolding in Somalia are as complex as the politics of any other nation, even if one reduce the crisis to one that has been brought to the by social injustices, by colonialism, by nationalism gone to seed, and by a twenty-one year old dictatorship, that of Siyad Barre. In other words, Somalia is country resplendent with contradictions, not a one-single issue land!
Throughout the trilogy, the boundary between animals and humans is blurred. Why do animals have such a prominent place in your work?
It is common for our poets to use animal imagery, maybe as result of the Somalis' daily proximity to animals with which we share the same space, occasionally the same room. The camel, among poets, is alluded to as the "Mother of man," metaphors such as this frequently serving as a leitmotif in the tradition. That I collapse the boundaries between the animal and the human world is due to the way in which Somalis, as Muslims, see the animals, extensions of themselves, companions in this world. (There is a verse in the Koran which states that "No kind of beast is there on the earth, nor fowl that flies with its wings—but is a community like you!") In addition to this, it is possible that my four-year sojourn in India as a student in my early twenties has made me appreciate the closeness between animal and human imageries, thereby making my life richer and more fulfilled. In Hindu mythology, Hanuman is seen as a beneficent guardian spirit and is viewed as a model of devotion.
Your characters violate Islamic as well as universal taboos, engaging in bestiality, incest, pedophilia, and murder. Why this interest in breaking taboos?
It is only as much an interest in breaking taboos as turning, say, the collapse of Mogadiscio to bear, in a metaphorical sense, on the upheaval that is at the root of the crisis in Somalia. In other words, it is worth our while to ask ourselves the question why it is people are shocked less by the cruelty they commit against one another and more by reading about explicit sex, or incest, or a man "mating" with a beast—things that are commonly done.
You named your trilogy Blood in the Sun. Blood is certainly everywhere in Maps, though less prominent in Gifts andSecrets. How does blood tie the novels together?
From the earliest times, the magic of creation was seen as residing in the blood women retained in the womb and which was thought to coagulate into a baby. So blood is where we all began, blood our ancestor, blood our kinship, blood, the thicker the better, our immediate family unit.
The narrative style and tone of the three novels ranges from serious to lighthearted, realistic to dreamlike, linear to fragmented. Why do you tell the stories in such different voices?
I would like to give everyone the chance to be heard, even if I disapprove of the positions they take. It is for this reason that I tell the stories in the different narrative voices of the characters so that a balance is maintained. I am sufficiently democratic to insist that a person is the position he or she assumes, no more and no less. Maybe the stories told in my novels are but a multiplicity of ideas, each idea represented or put forth by a speaker. Now it is altogether a different matter when you ask about the "you," "I," and "he" pronouns in Maps. Let me say this and briefly too: from my early years, I've always had a problem when it comes to pronouns, and I am more than certain I would run into further trouble if I were to attempt to meddle with them. I suggest that we let the pronouns in Maps be and that we . . . you . . . I enjoy the novel for what it is!
Several central characters in your work are expatriates who return home after living in the West. Their lives abroad are somehow unfulfilled. Do you wish to return to Somalia one day?
I've heard it said time and again by Somalis that their lives remain unfulfilled until they return to the land of their birth. It is fair to suppose that I employ the detached vision of the expatriates who return after a long absence, because they manage to focus better. Also, because they have are in a position to remember what was there before, memory being central to the telling of all stories. Do I wish to return to Somalia? Of course I do. There is nothing that will give me as much pleasure as a visit to Somalia, followed by a final move to Mogadiscio.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a new novel set during the Somali civil war.
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